Dry cleaning may be the next store service to go green.
California last month became the first state to phase out perchloroethylene, or “perc” — the solvent used by the vast majority of commercial dry cleaners. Businesses in the state will be allowed to continue using recently purchased equipment through 2023, but will be banned from buying any new perc machines beginning next year.
Environmentalists have long expressed concern about perc, which is highly toxic when concentrated and quickly becomes a carcinogenic groundwater contaminant when disposed of incorrectly. Unfortunately, alternatives to perc have generally posed other dangers, extreme flammability among them.
During the past decade, however, environmentally friendly alternatives have begun to emerge. GreenEarth Cleaning, for example, is a patented process that uses a modified liquid-silicone solvent. It degrades into sand, water and carbon dioxide upon disposal and can be used in some existing dry cleaning machines.
“The beauty of the solvent is that for consumers, there is no odor associated with it, no typical dry cleaning smell; and for operators, they don't have to deal with concerns about groundwater contamination, the employee health and safety issues or the environmental certification issues associated with perc,” explained Tim Maxwell, president of GreenEarth.
Specialized machines that use liquid carbon dioxide to remove tough stains from delicate fabrics have also shown significant promise, although high initial equipment costs have made these services slower to catch on. Currently, Hangers Cleaners is the largest franchisor of CO2 cleaners in the United States, with roughly 60 locations in North America and Europe. A Kansas City franchisee has even begun offering pickup and delivery services at several area HyVee locations.
Prices for garments laundered using the advanced systems are relatively competitive with conventional methods. Industry research in California has estimated that the perc ban will add about 10% to the average bill as operators pass along the costs of new equipment.
Currently, no other states are seeking a ban on the chemical, and consumer awareness of the issue remains low. But California's move may be a sign of things to come.
“Maybe 10% to 15% of consumers have actively searched for an alternative to perc-based dry cleaning,” said Maxwell. “It's a hard number to track down, but generally, the higher their level of education, the bigger their concerns, and awareness is growing exponentially right now.”